One Woman Muddling Through and Trying to Tell the Truth
Anne Lamott visited Willamette University tonight under the aupisces of the Lilly Foundation's Vocation Project, where college students are challenged to explore their values, their loves and their possible career choices. I had read some of her books over the years and always felt an unspoken kinship with her because her deep roots are around San Francisco Theological Seminary (San Anselmo), a Seminary where I spent some time in the summers in the 1970s when I was training for the ministry and teaching.
She speaks clearly and movingly about Christian faith, but it is not in language that would be recognized by the Bible-toting or Scripture-quoting Christians of the Bush Administration. She also speaks unashamedly of her fears and weaknesses, her cluelessness about life and the reality that her body, mind and sense organs are diminishing by the day. Yet she addresses the latter with guilelessness and transparency, with a sense that she has weighed in the balance and found wanting all the lines we speak to ourselves and others that deny our rage, fear, exhaustion and confusion at life.
Because of this she was able to evoke immediate laughter from and identification with the crowd, about 80% of whom were women. The crowd seemed to feel for her in her arthritis, her failing vision, the weakness in her back, her declining memory. In some ways she seemed "so Marin" to me, so much a stereotypical exemplar of an indulgent and overindulged hot-tub culture that anything slightly inconvenient about lighting or temperature drove her to distraction. But she also knew how to capitalize on these things, sending the audience into gales of laughter as she recounted her stories with developing allergies at age 40 or back problems at age 49. It was as if there were dozens of Anne Lamott fans, even groupies, reaching out to her as she described her bodily or mental infirmities. I was strangely reminded during her stories of her weaknesses of my time reading about the devotees of Asclepius in Hellenistic antiquity, where people would come from miles around to convalesce at the shrines of the healing deity, and never actually become cured of their ailments but have a whale of a time describing their condition to each other. But there was much more happening at the event than health complaints; she wanted to set the stage for telling us about her take on life in general and the writing life, in particular.
The Writing Life
One thing that is crystal clear in listening to her is that there never was a time that she wanted to be anything other than a writer. Her father was one; she went to college to become one; she dropped out of college (Goucher) to become a writer; she tried for years to get her MS accepted and only when she was on her 5th book could she earn enough to devote herself "full-time" to writing. She loves the crinkling noise and sharp crispations of paper folded and unfolded. She carries a pen and paper wherever she goes, aware that if she does not that she will lose whatever ideas have come her way. She considers it a very successful first draft is she works incredibly hard and it is a shi___ product. She never reads her work for pleasure, and only becomes comfortable with it when in the third or fourth draft.
She tells us that the most important characteristic for a writer to develop is alertness--to learn to pay attention to the world. Often life nudges you to go down ways that you hadn't originally intended to explore, and by going down that road you might catch the essence of life that is true to you. She cited with approval E.L. Doctorow's image of the writing life--driving at night with headlights on and never being able to see further ahead than the light of the headlights, but realizing that, ultimately, that is all the light you need. A receptivity to the world, where you look to find little light in tiny places, and then share your insights with even one person, amid all the confusion, is the place where grace resides.
An Unanswered Question
She answered many questions either by anticipating them or by addressing them when raised. There is no question but that her love of words, and the integrity of a story, is the driving force of her life, and that the discipline of "desk-work" is a daily part of her life. Yet, one thing about the way she explained her past seemed unresolved to me, and I will close with this lingering issue. On the one hand she said that her life had been driven to an extent by the pursuit of illusions--the greyhound chasing the metal bunny wrapped in fur was the one she used. This image means that you work very hard in the pursuit of goals that others have articulated for you and you have adopted, but then you find, upon attaining the goals, that they are essentially hollow. So, she did that, as she explained.
Then, on the other hand, she describes her 20s and 30s as "maintaining the prone," where she would lie on the floor for hours at a time, seemingly doing nothing but listening to music, drinking and daydreaming. Well, which is it? What is the metaphor or image which helps her understand and then explain her past life to us? Was she basically a seemingly carefree hippy who lived "far out" or was she in her essence a rather driven baby-boomer, seeking recognition and her earthly fame? And, since she seems to be neither now, what changed her? It was unfortunate that I have such an incomplete picture of how she would like to explain herself and her past as a result of the presentation.
But it was more than just tea time with Anne. We heard and shared the heart of a person whose love for her son, her church and her world extravasates with every breath.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long